Poet Andrés Cerpa explores caregiving, mental illness, and loss in powerful debut
Andrés Cerpa’s first full-length book of poetry is Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy (2019) from Alice James Books. The poem cycle centers on a tempestuous relationship between a father and a son, as the son becomes a caregiver during the father’s degenerative mental illness.
The author weaves several more narratives into the work, including the story of a lost lover and the narrator’s relationship with the city. Even given this narrative complexity, the poem cycle is clear and accessible to a wide variety of readers.
Cerpa has an explanation for why his work seems accessible. “I’m not tied to being allusive or confusing,” he says. “I think that when people encounter my work, any single line is pretty clear and simple. The mystery of it lies not in the single lines but in the connections between them. And that’s how life works too.”
An intense initiation into the writing life
Cerpa describes a late start to his interest in writing, compared to many writers who trace their first writing efforts to childhood. “I didn’t read much in high school, but in my senior year, I decided to read all the things that I had faked reading before!“ he says.
“So when I got to college, I wanted to sign up for a creative writing workshop. Short story and creative nonfiction were already full, so I ended up in a poetry workshop.” Cerpa found his interest piqued by the wide variety of poems, but even more formative was the informal outgrowth of the poetry workshop, a weekly student-hosted poetry night.
“Some of the older students in the class had a house where they started to host a weekly poetry night,” he recalls. “Some of us read poetry out loud and some played guitar, and it became a very important place for me. The poetry night became cool, and we’d have 50-80 people attending. Usually people would read their own work, but if they didn’t have something ready they might recite another author’s work.”
Reviving the spoken word with aural editing
Cerpa’s aural initiation to poetry played a crucial role in the way he began to develop his work as a mature writer.
“I walk around the city a lot, and I started bringing my audio recorder with me so I could record my ideas as I was walking. And from there it just seemed a natural way to edit, by hearing them out loud,” Cerpa says. “I record myself reading all my poems, and then I listen to them again and again. That’s how I edited. I also recorded the book all the way through, with the poems in different orders, so I could hear which order was best.”
Poetry was for hundreds of years an oral tradition, heavily reliant on speech and sound. Cerpa is returning to the ancient tradition of the bards when he bases composition or editing on an aural recording method. He began his poetic life through an oral performance community, so his first immersion in poetry was aural.
“I got to see my friends’ development through what I heard on poetry nights,” Cerpa says. “And also I could listen to my own work develop week after week. So that may be why speaking and recording became a part of how I edit, because that’s how I’m able to hear my work changing.”
Wrinkles in poetic time
Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy alternates between two different types of verse, one more formal and lyrical, and one more conversational but no less complex.
Cerpa gave considerable thought to his design. “When I created that structure for the book, I used the interaction between the different forms to create different textures,” he says.
“The longer, lyric, crafted pieces are more ethereal and take place outside of time. But the ‘Notes’ sections are called “Kairos in Chronos” because they take place in chronological time,” Cerpa says. “And I think having those Notes sections positioned in between the lyric poems gives the reader the space to absorb the more ethereal work. It changes the rhythm.”
Influence of caregiving on work
The caregiving relationship central to this debut book of poetry is informed by Cerpa’s own highs and lows caring for his ailing father.
“When you’re caring for someone with an incurable, degenerative disease, going to the doctor’s office is miserable,” Cerpa says. “But talking to my father as I drove him to an appointment, sharing a slice of pizza in a psych ward as he had a moment of clarity, kissing him goodbye as he was wheeled into a surgery that would eventually hurt him more than help—these are moments that should be treated with respect. In my life, for my family and myself I needed to make room for that joy to enter my heart, and as I develop as a writer I need to make more room for those moments of gratitude, because I am grateful. Despair and gratitude live in the same moments and when I’m writing at my best I think I recognize that.”
Andrés Cerpa will appear at the Arkansas Literary Festival on Friday, April 26, 2019.
Andrés Cerpa is the author of Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy, from Alice James Books (January 2019). A recipient of fellowships from the McDowell Colony and Canto Mundo, he has work featured or forthcoming in Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, Frontier Poetry, West Branch, Foundry Journal, Wildness, and elsewhere.